New ‘No Child Left Behind’ Aims to Strengthen K-12 STEM Education

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The major new K-12 education law, which replaces the much-maligned No Child Left Behind, aims to strengthen federal support for STEM education at the nation’s public elementary and secondary schools through new funding streams and the creation of a new STEM teacher leadership corps

It’s a Christmas miracle, a bipartisan bill signing,” intoned President Obama yesterday morning as he signed into law the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), adding that “now the hard work begins.” The new education law, a rewrite of the 50-year-old Elementary and Secondary Education Act long in the works, overhauls the much-maligned 2002 No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law by shifting much of the responsibility for accountability for student performance at the nation’s K-12 public schools from the federal government back to the states. Less discussed, the law also aims to strengthen federal government support of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education, adding new federal funding streams for STEM education and establishing the STEM Master Teacher Corps, a new leadership and professional development program for STEM teachers.

Bipartisan law widely praised, seen as improvement over No Child Left Behind

The bill arrived at the President’s desk to bipartisan acclaim, with the Senate having easily approved it by a vote of 85 to 12 on Wednesday and the House by a vote 359 to 64 last week. Statements from both sides of the political aisle and chambers of Congress reflected a rare air of bipartisan celebration.

Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN) said the law would “unleash a new era of innovation and excellence in student achievement,” and that it is “the largest devolution of federal control to states in a quarter century.

Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), the ranking member of the same committee declared, “Today marks a great step forward in our nation’s continuing commitment to provide all students with a high-quality education.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan called on Congress to approve the legislation in a public email dated Dec. 3, saying the bill was “good news for our nation’s schools.” And in a Dec. 8 speech at the Learning Forward conference, he praised the conference agreement as a better product than either the House or Senate bills had been.

Leaders in both parties touted the bill as a much-needed reform of NCLB. During yesterday’s bill signing, Obama said of the original 2002 law: “It often fell short. … It led to too much testing during classroom time and forced schools and school districts into cookie-cutter reforms.” In recent years, the Department of Education (DOE) granted as many as 47 state waivers each year from the onerous accountability requirements of the NCLB law.

Law makes STEM education a priority for nation’s K-12 schools

While the ESSA focuses mostly on broad K-12 education policy – including testing requirements, state education plans, and federal grant funding to the states – the law also prioritizes STEM education. The law has nearly 100 references to STEM, and the bill’s authors clearly sought to incorporate STEM as a national educational priority. Among STEM education highlights, the law:

  • provides funding through grants to the states for
    • STEM education engagement, courses, after-school programs, service-based and field opportunities, and other activities;
    • professional development and instructional materials for STEM teachers; and
    • the creation and enhancement of STEM-focused specialty schools;
  • allows schools to partner with institutions of higher education for professional development for teachers, including in STEM;
  • establishes a nationwide STEM Master Teacher Corps, a state-led effort to recognize, reward, attract, and retain outstanding STEM teachers, particularly in high-need and rural schools;
  • retains the No Child Left Behind requirement that states must test all students in science, once each in elementary, middle and high school;
  • retains the requirement that states must test all students in mathematics in each of grades three through eight and again in high school; and
  • retains mathematics and science, and adds computer science, as core academic subjects that are part of what constitutes a “well-rounded education.

Notably, however, the bill does not renew the Math and Science Partnership (MSP) Program, a DOE grant program created in the NCLB law that funds collaborative partnerships between STEM departments at institutions of higher education and high-need school districts. It is not yet clear whether the MSP program will continue at the DOE without authorization, but the Department should still be able to fund such partnerships under the new law even without a formal MSP program.

STEM education advocacy groups endorsed law

The STEM Education Coalition, an alliance of more than 600 business, professional, and education organizations, supported the legislation that later became law in an early December statement. The Coalition pointed to the STEM provisions included in the agreement:

We are encouraged that the Every Student Succeeds Act retains math and science testing, creates a STEM Master Teacher Corps, will provide much needed professional development training to STEM educators, and would allow greater access for thousands of school districts to federal funding to support STEM programs and activities, including partnerships with nonprofits. The bill also continues afterschool and informal STEM activities, encourages alternative certification programs to allow more STEM teachers to come from industry, will retain and provide promising STEM teachers with differential pay, and provides critical support for leadership training and mentoring to strengthen instruction in STEM fields.

The Physical Sciences Education Policy Coalition (PSEPC), a smaller group that includes AIP and a number of AIP member societies, including the American Association of Physics Teachers, the American Astronomical Society, the American Meteorological Society, the American Physical Society, and The Optical Society, also endorsed the bill in a letter sent to every member of Congress. The PSEPC letter concluded:

The conference agreement embraces STEM education in both spirit and through considerable financial support, and in our estimation this bill would contribute to the broader national effort to ensure the U.S. maintains its competitive edge internationally in the STEM fields, which drive innovation and economic growth.

Department of Education and states tasked with implementation

The acting Secretary of Education John King Jr., in collaboration with the states, is now responsible for taking the steps necessary to implement the new law, with authorities through 2020. Yesterday, President Obama released a report to accompany the bill signing that summarizes the progress the country’s schools have already made since he was elected to office, including reaching over halfway to the President’s goal of training 100,000 STEM teachers in a decade. You can sign up for news and email updates from the Department of Education about the ESSA here.

The bill will likely be hailed as one of the top successes of the 114th Congress. Moments before the House passed the ESSA on Dec. 2, House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD) spoke on the floor of his chamber to spotlight the promise of the bill that is now a new law:

It’s not … perfect … but it represents a reasonable compromise that will strengthen elementary and secondary education in this country, provide certainty going forward, and help prepare the next generation of students – no matter who they are, how they learn, or where they live – for success in college, in their careers and their vocations, and as future innovators and entrepreneurs in our economy.

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